Elizabeth Henstridge was the first billed name on the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. cast list tonight, and regardless of the fact that no other regular cast member appeared in this episode (until the very end), boy did she deserve it. When the show told us that we would finally find out what happened to Simmons when she was pulled into the portal, I expected an episode that worked like most S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes do — a volley of back and forth flashbacks, alternating from past to present, especially given last week’s events. What I did not expect was for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to produce a bottle episode that shined the spotlight on Jemma Simmons for an entire hour, in turn giving us what is not only Henstridge’s best performance but one of the strongest episodes of the show so far.
We start from the beginning — the actual beginning, as in, six months ago where Simmons and Fitz are making dinner plans before the unfortunate monolith incident — and we pick up right after Simmons lands on the other side of the portal. She’s rightly terrified, screaming for Fitz to help her as the portal closes, struggling to find a way to get back. She even tries to use her cell phone, because why wouldn’t you? (Maybe outer space has great reception. I mean, The Martian had Mark Watney growing potatoes on Mars, so anything’s possible.) She quickly surmises that she’s on another planet, which throws her into a disbelieving panic.
Jemma’s first few hours are filled with, well, everything that you’d expect from our favorite resourceful scientist. She convinces herself of the rationale regarding standard S.H.I.E.L.D. protocol for extraction when an agent gets left behind. She keeps herself optimistic by reminding herself that Fitz has to be looking for her. She takes her phone and starts recording a log of her surroundings, trying to figure out the properties of the planet, and even takes some pictures of the landscape. She starts to realize rescue might not happen right away, but keeps herself hopeful: after all, Fitz has to be looking for her. And they’re going to dinner.
So Simmons waits. And waits. And waits. There’s a (really cute) picture of Fitz on her phone that she keeps staring at, and she immediately starts talking to it, using her partner’s logic to reassure herself. That’s just the first time our heart is going to be broken this hour regarding these two, because even though Fitz didn’t appear in the episode until later, his presence was very much felt throughout the whole hour. Simmons may be on a different planet, miles away from the entire world, but Fitz is tethering her to Earth — that’s not love so much as it is being the most important part of someone. (Think about that first time Simmons woke up after Fitz rescued her, and how she immediately crawled into Fitz’s arms. Now reconcile that with the fact that she was most likely staring at his face every night before she went to sleep, and how it must have felt to do the one thing she never thought she would do again: hold her best friend in her arms.)
Simmons thinks she’ll sleep and continue her journey toward finding a way home when it’s light out. But when she wakes up, there’s still no sun. And after 71 hours, there’s still no light, and Simmons is starting to lose it. She tells Fitz she can’t wait here for him any longer — she has to try to figure out how to survive. Because practical Simmons has realized exactly how long she can be here without food and water, and that deadline is fast approaching. “But if you do show up while I’m away, you’ll know where to find me,” she promises her friend as she leaves her necklace in a formation of rocks near the portal’s original entrance.
I could talk for hours and days not only about Henstridge and the performance she gives in this episode, but also about the way the hour was crafted. Simmons talking to herself is great; Simmons using the time to voice all her fears about Fitz’s dinner date (what she’ll wear, what to do if they run out of things to talk about) is even better. By narrating her thoughts through an imaginary conversation, we’re not pulled out of the scene, distracted while trying to figure out what’s going on — we’re even more invested. And getting inside the head of someone who has been one of the most interesting characters on this show feels like a gift.
NEXT: In your face, Neil Armstrong!